11 years ago today I was ordained as a Priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church. For the first 8 years, I served at a large parish in urban Queens with approximately 1,000 families, two locations, 4 priests, and about 50% of the community having immigrated from Egypt over the previous 10 years. Since leaving NYC and moving to Central Jersey in August 2013, I have been serving as the only priest at a small multi-ethnic, suburbia Coptic parish ing Princeton, with approximately 60 families. We rent space from multiple venues, have 11 ethnicities represented, and only one member having immigrated within the past decade.
The make-up of the 2 communities could not be more different from one another. But what I realize as I reflect back is astonishing. Regardless of what country, state, city, or village you grew up in, you are not really all that different from the guy sitting next to you at the stop light, on the subway, or in the Starbucks. Sure, you may have different experiences, accents, and preferences, but at the core of your being is a shared humanity that longs to be loved, accepted, and in community with God & others. Here are 7 of the lessons I have learned:
1. Brokenness: Along life’s journey, we have all been wounded. Many of those wounds leave deep emotional scars, some more “visible” than others. Your brokenness does not define you, but does offer God a unique capacity to work through you. If you can get to a place of letting God heal your wounds – and are willing to invest into building authentic Christian community – your healed wounds can actually provide a source of encouragement and, even, healing for others.
2. Eager to See the Gospel: The Good News has been extended to people from all walks of life, whether men or women, black or white, American, Egyptian, Dominican, El Salvadorian, Chinese, British, or Italian, there is no cultural, ethnic, or gender pre-requisite necessary to come to God. What people needed is to have an authentic experience of the Truth. Nobody wants to simply hear stories; people are eager to see the Gospel in action!
3. Recharge Your Battery: Regardless of your season of life, our world is busy. The best, and first piece of, advice I received after returning from Egypt after my ordination was from Father Hanna Girgis, the senior priest at the Coptic Church in Queens. He invited me into his house for a cup of coffee and dropped the following wisdom on me. He said “Abouna, you look exhausted! Do you want to serve for 50 years or 5 years? Do you want to live long and serve God or get sick? Then eat healthy, get proper rest, exercise everyday, and never neglect your time of personal prayer!” Great advice from a great man that just celebrated his 95th Birthday 2 weeks ago!
4. The Universal Language: Having shared the Gospel, counseled couples, and discipled eager Christians, there have been many times over the past 11 years I inadequately attempted to communicate the Gospel. Whether it was in speaking to a rowdy Sunday School class or a family of recent immigrants, that I had nothing in common with, the one thing that every person understood was genuine, heart-felt love. Father Antonious Makaryus, – who also serves in the Coptic Church in Queens, modeled this beautifully to me – extended loving, fatherly hugs and a warm smile to every person who walked through the doors of the Church. People experienced God’s love through him and as a result, they kept coming back to hear the Gospel. The truth is that nobody care how much you know until they know how much you care.
5. Building Trust Takes Time: My first few years in Queens began with bumpy relationship, which later blossomed into deep meaningful friendships, which I will carry with me for the entirety of my life. As a new comer to the community, i needed to gain the trust of my new family. Since helping to start St. Anianus Church in Princeton, NJ, I have come to learn the same lesson. Whether it is growing an authentic community at Church, your circle of friends, a team at work, or in your marriage, it takes time to build trust.
6. Bigger is Not Always Better: We lived in a super-sized world where we are told that “bigger is always better.” But when it comes to community, I am convinced that this model has its limitations. Whether you belong to a large church, organization or family – or if you happen to be in a smaller setting – remember that we are all limited with the number of meaningful social interactions that we can manage, somewhere around 150 people. In the social media climate of growing personal platforms, through followers and “friends”, in your personal relationships aim for depth, over breadth.
7. Investing in Others through Investing in Yourself: Every time you invest into yourself, it is actually an investment into those you love and serve. When you eat healthy and exercise, it improves your chances of being around for your family. Any spiritual book or leadership course you have taken is an investment into the people you serve. Nourishing your relationship with God will have profound impact on those around you. As one Orthodox ascetic put it, “acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”